By David Dodd
I think I have the very best true synchronicity story related to the Grateful Dead. An audacious claim, I know, but just listen to this.
When I was a student at UC Davis, in 1976 or 1977, in my very first year of being a Deadhead, I was getting ready to ride my bike in to campus from my apartment. I was humming a Grateful Dead song, and hopped onto the bike. Just as I stepped onto the pedals and started pushing, I was singing “Blue light rain, whoah, unbroken chain,” and at that very instant my bike chain snapped.
Over the years, I’ve heard many more synchronicity stories—I’d like it if you shared yours.
“Unbroken Chain” is, for me, one of the BIG songs in the Dead’s repertoire. Words by Bobby Petersen, music by Phil Lesh, it stands as one of most musically complex pieces they performed, and the fact that it was never, until 1995, performed live in concert by the Grateful Dead puts it into a unique category. The roar that went up from the audience when they broke it out at the Spectrum in Philadelphia on March 19 of that year virtually drowned out the first minute of the performance. It stayed in the live repertoire during that final tour, and was played in the penultimate spot in the second set of their last show on July 9, straight out of Drumz and into “Sugar Magnolia.” Ten live performances.
But the studio version on Mars Hotel always blows me away. The mysterious studio sounds that resemble jet planes taking off or water dripping, the incredible Garcia solo, the rapid changes in mood and the twists and turns of tempo and structure all combine for a wild ride. And Bobby Petersen’s lyric is right up there with some of Hunter’s best, for me.
The title has been taken up by a number of entities and events over the years—somehow it exemplifies something about the band. There was a fanzine called “Unbroken Chain,” started in 1986 by Laura Paul Smith and continued under the editorship of Dave Serrins, running for more than ten years. The Phil Lesh charitable foundation is called Unbroken Chain. And a large conference was held at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, a few years back, also called Unbroken Chain. Clearly, the phrase appeals to Deadheads in a big way.
In the Annotated Lyrics, I devote a half-column of annotation to the concept of “unbroken chain,” mostly as a theological construct relating to the transmission of authority. In Petersen’s lyric, the unbroken chain is “of you and me,” as well as “of sorrow and pearls,” “of sky and sea,” and “of the western wind.” Image after image in the lyric is put forth, each layering onto the other in a cumulative accretion of meaning. Like a pearl, maybe. For me, the imagery and the phrase “unbroken chain” together work to tell me to make my own meaning of what is around me, whether it be from loss, from sorrow, from the natural world, or from my fellow human beings.
Last week, I was at the Grateful Dead Archive at the UC Santa Cruz library, and there, in a glass case, was a lyrics sheet for “Unbroken Chain” with Garcia’s handwritten notes for the chords. Someday I have to head down to the Archive and spend some time with the Bobby Petersen papers.
For awhile, I speculated that Bobby Petersen may have been gay, what with the line about catching it when you try to love your brother. Probably not, but an apt line for our times, from a number of perspectives.
This song mentions lilacs, so it reminds me of my mother, whose birthday was this week. She would have been 90 on Monday. A few years ago I planted a lilac in my back yard in her memory, as the first plant in what has become my Grateful Dead theme garden. Kind of a fun idea, I think, to grows plants mentioned in Grateful Dead songs. So far, I have manzanita, lilacs, begonias, roses, and lilies. I’d like to add a magnolia. For years I have been unsuccessfully seeking a real American Beauty rose, but have had no luck as yet. Mangrove might be a bit tough, and a weeping willow would take up too much room.
In San Francisco, there’s a Shakespeare Garden in Golden Gate Park (I’m sure they have these in many places throughout the world), which has all the plants mentioned in Shakespeare. I would love to see a garden like that in Golden Gate Park for the Dead—a civic Grateful Dead Garden. There they could grow all the plants—barley, wheat, corn, and on and on. A weeping willow by the bank’s green edge. Hey, we can dream, can’t we?
I’m hoping for a conversation that could include synchronicity, gardens, authority, gay rights, and anything else that might be on your mind. Over to you!
A couple weeks ago I had a premonition a GD cover band I was going to see would play it, and they did. But that's not the coincidence I wanted to mention.
I too was once riding my bicycle, I was listening to 5/19/77, on 5/19 of whatever year it was, 2005 I believe. I was riding late at night on these old back roads when I hit a gap on the shoulder of the road wrong and had a wipeout during China Doll. I wasn't hurt too bad, just shook up, I was only going 14 mph (that's the last thing I remember seeing on the odometer I had on the bike). As I got to my feet to make sure nothing was broken, I realized my cd player survived the fall. And as I stood I heard the line "pick up your China Doll...it's only fractured...just a little nervous from the fall." I smiled, brushed myself off, and rode the few miles left I had to get home.